The Last Straw

Twists & Turns of Phrase

The last straw or final straw is a problem or annoyance that on its own would be a trifling matter, but that, when added to series of previous irks and irritations, seems intolerable.

This turn of phrase originated in the longer proverb the last straw breaks the camel’s back, a metaphor suggesting that there is a threshold to the burdens we can bear and that even the smallest additional burden beyond that threshold can break us.

This proverb can be traced back to Charles Dickens, who in his 1848 novel Dombey and Son wrote:

As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr. Dombey. He motioned his child’s foster-father to the door, who departed by no means unwillingly: and then turning the key, paced up and down the room in solitary wretchedness. For all his starched, impenetrable dignity and composure, he wiped blinding tears from his eyes as he did so; and often said, with an emotion of which he would not, for the world, have had a witness, `Poor little fellow!’

Still earlier forms of this idiom have been traced to the 1600s and involved feathers and horses instead of straws and camels.

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4 Responses to The Last Straw

  1. Patrick says:

    I find this very interesting, because normally I think of “the last straw” as simply a figure of speech, and never connected it to “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, nor did I realize that the latter was a proverb. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, it is quite fascinating.

  2. Krev says:

    What’s the irk?

  3. Heather says:

    Somewhere along the line I heard an idiom described as a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced even once the meanings of all the words within it have been discovered, so I’m not surprised you decided to avoid them in multicultural contexts where clarity is paramount, especially ones where justice hangs in the balance. Idioms really can be recipes for confusion.

    Do you happen to remember any of the other camel-and-straw meanings and where they hailed from? I’m always keen to collect more turns of phrase.

  4. Years back, I was training courtroom interpreters and brought this proverb to their attention. It came out that every different language or culture had its own idiom that referred to the straw or the camel. We decided that great confusion would ensue if we used any such idiom with a multicultural audience.

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